Two Adams Combine their Ribs for an Operatic Eve

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Earlier this morning it was announced that composers John Adams and John Luther Adams will be collaborating on an opera—the former’s seventh and the latter’s first. While a clever pairing on name alone, the combination of each composer’s specific talents also lends itself nicely to their proposed subject matter: An opera based on the life of Sarah Palin. The material may be controversial, but with John Adams’s flair for the political in his operas (this is the man for whom the term “CNN Opera” was coined, after all) and John Luther Adams’s sonic evocation of the Alaskan landscape, this musical bridge is guaranteed to lead to somewhere.

During the 2008 election, John Luther Adams spoke out critically against his adopted home-state’s political figures, chief among them Palin. Comparing her rhetoric to that of Joseph Stalin’s, Luther Adams called out the then-state governor candidate for being “a small-minded, mean-spirited woman who lacks the maturity and the judgment to be Vice-President of the United States.”

So what, then, made the composer look toward Palin for his first opera?

“Look, I love Alaska,” Luther Adams says in a phone interview from his home in Fairbanks. “For me, the chance to immortalize this state on a grander scale is too good to pass up. And Shostakovich wrote plenty depictions of Stalin.”

Luther Adams adds that he will take a back-seat to the political intrigue of the score, leaving that to his near-eponymous counterpart. Instead, he will focus on ensuring that the opera remains rooted in the musical traditions and aural landscape of The Last Frontier. He hopes to work his signature “white sound” into the orchestra and anticipates using some native music from the Iñupiat, Yup'ik and Athabascan villages for choral numbers.

“John [Adams] really dragged me into it,” Luther Adams adds. “He was all, ‘Come on, man! This is too big to fail!’ And, to be honest, I’m starting to go a little crazy with the weather here and wouldn’t mind a few months in the Bay Area.”

Pulitzer-Prize–winning composer John Adams approaches the project slightly differently from his Alaskan counterpart. Having written an opera based on Nixon’s visit to China and incorporating issues such as the idea of a Palestinian state and the building of the first atomic bomb into works such as The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, Adams hopes to explore the political implications of Palin’s life.

“I’m always looking for a challenge,” Adams says in a direct-message interview conducted over Twitter. “And getting close to a character like Nixon is going to seem easy as falling off a log compared to Palin.” In a separate message, he adds: ““Pig pig pig pig pig pig pig!”

Perhaps most ambitiously, Adams is looking to musically personify the character of Palin herself. He hints at the possibility of creating a sequel to Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” with the “Maverick chord” as part of the ex-governor’s leitmotif. He sees the role of Palin developing in a way similar to the vocality of Madame Mao from his first—and breakthrough—opera Nixon in China, noting that the coloratura soprano pegged to the role will have to “Trill baby, trill.”

Curiously, this will not be the first Sarah Palin opera. Curtis Hughes’s Say It Ain’t So, Joe, based primarily on the Palin-Biden debate from October of 2008, was presented by Boston’s Guerilla Opera in 2009. The piece contains plenty of Adams-ian nods (albeit it is light on the Luther Adams influence), however both Johns have no qualms with oversaturating the Palin-opera market. In fact, there’s a note of bravado in Adams’s tweets when he sends out one final message regarding the possible overlap: “No question, we’re going to write the definitive Sarah Palin opera,” he says. “We’ll teach these motherf- -kers how to compose.”

Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone.